Tools for Thought

Thinking beyond productivity

Fast Track Decluttering by Separating Value and Relevance

by Andre · No Comments

Julie Morgenstern’s SHED decluttering method has been amazing. Three months ago I pared by book collection from 673 books to 148 in one day. Yesterday, I glanced at my bookshelves and felt a twinge of discomfort. I recognized that many of the books I previously decided were essential to keep were, in fact, clutter. So today I’m cutting the collection by half.

The books I’m discarding don’t serve my current life project, so there’s no point in keeping them “just in case.” The books aren’t clutter because they take up space. They’re clutter because their presence in my life represents an implicit obligation to read them. Yes, I could go the rest of my life keeping them around without reading them, but then they’re no longer books; they’re doorstops. They cease to have meaning and serve no purpose. They keep me anchored to aspects of the past that I no longer need to perpetuate.

Life themes

According to Morgenstern, each of us has a life theme. These themes are focal points around which we organize our behaviors, values and relationships. As we grow, themes evolve or change. The biggest impediments to change are the artifacts that we accumulated in pursuit of our original theme. We begin to identify with the “stuff” surrounding our themes.

I summarized my old theme as “learning,” and acquired a ton of books in pursuit of this theme. While I’m still passionate about learning, I no longer have my identity invested in it, so I don’t need to surround myself with books to symbolically demonstrate that I’m “learned.”

My new theme is “resonance,” a word that’s probably strange to outsiders, but the basic idea is that I only want to have and do things in my life that resonate as authentic and essential. Any vision of success that requires being a more voracious consumer or a lifestyle salesman is a nonstarter. Eliminating unreal things, relationships and obligations is my priority.


Clutter is excess, not mess. According to Morgenstern:

Clutter . . . is defined as any obsolete object, space, commitment or behavior that weighs you down, distracts you or depletes your energy. [It] is symbolic of our attachment to something from the past that must be released in order to make room for change.

Decluttering, therefore, is making room for change, not just a means to have a prettier working or living space. In SHED, there are three types of clutter:

  • Physical clutter: unused clothes (even if perfectly wearable), obsolete gadgets, etc. Even a large house kept after a divorce might be clutter, depending on the circumstance
  • Schedule clutter: unproductive obligations — meetings, errands, etc. They might have served a purpose at one point, but are now obstructing more useful activity
  • Habit clutter: excessive television watching and internet surfing, checking email, etc. They relieve stress in the moment but increase stress by creating time famine

While SHED is a comprehensive system for attacking clutter on each of these fronts, I want to focus on one insight I had that sped up my decluttering across the board.

Two questions, one art

In SHED, once you have your new theme, you look at each “point of entry” (physical, schedule, habit) and create “treasure guidelines” or determine which things to keep — the treasures — and which to trash. These guidelines are a detailed checklist for asking of each thing, “Does this support my new theme?” If not, it’s trash. The goal is to keep no more that 10-20 percent of one’s original load in each point of entry.

When doing this with physical clutter, I still found myself deliberating too much over each objects, and couldn’t figure our why I was resisting the process. Then it occurred to me: I was holding onto things because they had value. I needed to take the next step and ask myself if they had relevance.

Whenever you have trouble deciding whether or not to keep something, ask yourself two questions:

  • Does this have value?
  • Does this have relevance?

Once I applied those two questions to each and every object I considered getting rid of, the whole decluttering process started to flow. Our emotions are tied to the intrinsic value of something, not its relevance. Be sure to ask both questions. Asking if something has value allows us to acknowledge our reasons for wanting to hold onto it. Asking if it has relevance allows us to discern whether or not it enhances our own lives, rather then someone else’s.

My monographs of Tadao Ando and Renzo Piano were valuable, but I’m no longer as aspiring architect, so I sold them to someone who would find them relevant. Doing so brings enhances my commitment to writing, an activity has greater relevance and resonance for me. Multiply that process by hundreds of objects, and you can imagine the improvement opportunity available for letting go of obsolete engagements.

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
– Elizabeth Bishop

Pick one thing in your environment that’s been sitting around that you’ve been meaning to get rid of, and apply the two questions to get the decluttering ball rolling. As Bishop would say, “Lose something every day.”

(Photo credit: Panayotis)

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